“You can't hide from pressure. Football is a game of pressure. Everyone expects big things from you.”
The broad shoulders of Emmanuel Emenike look capable of withstanding their fair share of expectations, but after Nigeria's opening 0-0 draw with Iran – where the reigning African champions largely failed to ignite – he accepts there will be even more than usual when they face Group F rivals Bosnia and Herzegovina.
As a result the team have come in for some criticism from the football-loving streets of Abudja, Lagos and across the rest of their West African homeland on the other side of the Atlantic, but the burly Fenerbahçe striker feels they must take it in their stride. “When things don't go well, everyone speaks, everyone talks the way they like,” he told FIFA.
“But what can you do? You just have to carry on working hard, that's all you can do. The pressure has to be there. The match didn't go the way we wanted, we just have to carry on and win the Bosnia and Herzegovina game and see what happens. The game against Iran was disappointing.”
The passion for the Super Eagles is huge amongst the 170 million people in the continent's most populous country, and when Stephen Keshi's side step out into the Arena Pantanal at 11pm African time, Emenike expects day-to-day life will be put on the back burner. “Nigeria is a football-loving country and even for U17 or U20 matches everyone locks up their shops,” the joint top-scorer at last year's CAF Africa Cup of Nations explained. “Even the people on the street go in to watch Nigeria play, so we always want to try our best to make the country happy, because everyone always wants to watch Nigeria play and always wants us to do well.”
I always try to prove myself and to be there, to play for Nigeria because I play for the badge.
While they dominated possession and managed more shots on goal than their Asian counterparts, they were frustrated in a game that – in terms of respective FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking positions – offered the greatest chance at exiting the field with maximum points in hand. As a result, Emenike concedes that spirits were hit in Curitiba, but their vigour has returned ahead of the clash with the FIFA World Cup™ first-timers.
“The unity is still there,” the 27-year-old said. “I think the first few seconds after the Iran game, the spirit in the changing room was a little bit low, but now, seeing it yesterday and today, even in training, everyone is fighting.”
This, he feels, is a factor helped by some of veteran figures in the side. Joseph Yobo and Vincent Enyeama are both within a few caps of reaching their centuries, and the perspectives of the seasoned professionals within the dressing rooms have made the difference, Emenike feels. “They always speak to us and try to advise us, especially Yobo as the captain.”
These choice words are what has given them a steely focus heading into this crucial game that will decide whether qualification for the Round of 16 remains in their hands. “[Yobo] is always trying to speak to the players, [letting us know the Iran result] was not the end of the world. Because we could go out there and beat Bosnia and still go through.”
And as those fans back home watch on, willing their boys in green to victory, Emenike proudly declares that he will be running at the Europeans' defence with the supporters in his mind because of the crest on his chest. “I always try to prove myself and to be there, to play for Nigeria because I play for the badge,” he declared with passion. “I play for the people back home, who are watching us on the screen. That is all I can say.”